Sunday, 6 December 2009

Preparing with terror?

A sermon for the second Sunday in advent: Feasting on John the Baptist

Reading: Luke 1 v 68-79

Luke 3 v 1-6

Preparation features on all our agendas right now.

However much we might want to avoid it.

However much we might wish to ignore it.

However little we feel inclined.

All of us get caught up in preparing for Christmas.

Somehow, at this time of year, our socio-economic status is ignored.

At the very time when you might think that we’d be more conscious and more sensitive to those struggling with social and financial burdens, with lack of opportunity, with hardship of all kinds, everyone becomes lumped in a common mass of writhing humanity, lunging haphazardly into preparing for Christmas.

Our gospel readings this morning focus on preparation.

I think, technically, we should only have read one of those passages from Luke’s gospel today but, since I couldn’t decide which one to read, I did that typically woman thing and chose both!

Firstly, we have Zechariah, giving glory to God over the birth of his son, the one who was born to prepare the way for the Messiah.

Zechariah had been struck dumb from the time he was told about the pregnancy but, after the birth, his tongue was released and what a speech.

I don’t recall Idris being quite as eloquent when he beheld our first born!

What is even more amazing is that, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah was waxing eloquent and praising God that his son was going to be allowed to play second fiddle, that his son was going to be allowed to prepare the way of the Lord.

In our culture of winners and losers, of humiliating reality TV shows where everyone wants to come out on top, Zechariah’s attitude seems all the more amazing.

He was honoured to have fathered the child who would grow and who would be called to be a prophet of the Most High.

A wonderful speech, filled with the spirit and with the grace of God.

And so we move on to the second gospel reading.

That baby has grown.

And now begins to fulfil the purpose for which he was born.

Going ahead of Jesus to prepare people for his advent.

A ministry of preparation.

How many of us would settle for that?

How many of us would be content with never actually seeing the fruits of our endeavours, content with the knowledge that we’re doing our bit, we’re sowing the seed that others will harvest.

In the church, that is our calling.

To faithfully prepare the way.


To keep on listening for God’s voice coming from the wilderness.

And to follow God’s instructions.

But what is the way to prepare?

It involves today, as it did then, repentance.

A turning around, taking a new direction.

And that puts preparation into a whole new light.

A new and difficult light.

For who among us wants to change course?

Who among us wants to leave all the things we’ve grown accustomed to?

Leave the patterns we’re used to, to follow a new and unfamiliar route.

We don’t do repentance in the church.

We don’t do change.

And yet, unless we’re prepared to embrace change.

Unless we’re prepared to get to grips with repentance, any preparations we make are only half hearted, scratching at the surface.

So much glitter and tinsel.

Icing on the cake instead of the richness underneath.

The problem is that, for so long, we’ve been selling the icing as the thing to aim for.

We’ve marketed the icing as the big prize and neglected the crafting of what is underneath, of what is foundational.

The bits that aren’t seen.

The bits that really make a difference because without their preparation and their solid grounding, the icing would have nothing on which to rest.

John the Baptist was, like it or not, awkward message and all, a vital part of the ministry of Jesus, Son of God.

John’s unpopular message of repentance was needed to herald what was to follow.

And, in this season of preparation, as we seek to welcome Jesus again into our world, we would do well to hear again that message.


Turn around.

God’s kingdom is near.

Let’s stop papering over the cracks, covering up the flaws with icing.

Let’s look, with honesty at what lies beneath the image we imagine that we present to the world.

No matter how we package things, no matter how we ignore the gaping holes, we cannot keep on running from the call to change.

The season of Advent is not a restful, cosy, glowing time for us in the church.

It’s a time to look with honesty beneath the surface of our preparation, to discern what needs changed, what needs turned around.

The paths that need straightened before the kingdom of God can come, before the Son of God can truly be born in this place.

It’s a time to accept the challenge of a call to play second fiddle, second fiddle to a God who’s full of surprises.

To acknowledge that there is much in us that needs to be levelled and smoothed out to enable us to be up to the challenge.

Jesus advent 2000 years ago heralded a whole new era.

As does his coming into the world today.

So it’s not just a case of dusting off last year’s decorations, or re-arranging last year’s cards.

It’s time to find a whole new way of doing and being.

It’s not something we can ever be familiar with or feel comfortable with.

There is too much at stake.

Mediocrity will not suffice.

Here is something that Deitrich Bonhoeffer said in an Advent sermon he preached over 80 years ago about the offence of God’s coming to earth in a child.

"It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love."

Pleasant and agreeable.

Is that how we see God’s coming?

Or does it strike terror into us and not jut because of what we shall spend or how frantic we will be.

But terror, because God, who knows our hearts, comes in love, to turn us around and make us different.

May our preparation this Advent involve terror and repentance in response to that incredible love and grace of God.

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